The renewed legalisation procedure that took place in Portugal in 1996, aimed at citizens that were living in Portugal without a residence permit, was mainly due to the fact that the first process had been badly organised. The first took place from October 1992 until March 1993.
About 38,364 immigrants obtained residence permits then, even though it was estimated that around 80,000 people were living without them.
The first process had negative and positive aspects. It was positive to attempt to change the policy of ignoring the problem of the Sans Papiers, as well as the related discrimination. The negative aspects are mainly the cases of corruption, misinformation, obstacles placed by the authorities (asking for documents that weren't necessary), and the difficulties in getting the necessary documents for the application, above all the declarations issued by the employers.
Four years later, after the election of a new government, a new legalisation process took place. Until the approval of the law by the Parliament on the 24th March, promises had been made to correct the negative aspects of the first legalisation.
The law (Law nº 17/96) was passed unanimously, although there had been statements stressing unfair aspects of it. This law established the Extraordinary Process of Legalisation of Immigrants from the 11th June onwards for a maximum period of six months. It is interesting to note that only the Communists and the Greens presented alternative proposals for legalisation laws. This fact shows the interest, or lack of interest, of the other parties in Parliament in eliminating the illegal status that affects many citizens.
Nevertheless, not all the promises were held: the public information campaign started too late and little publicity had been made (or only publicity that did not reach the immigrants, which also shows a mismanagement of financial resources).
An atmosphere of trust and confidence had not been created, because searches had been made by the police to arrest illegal immigrants; and, finally, in some of the offices opened to receive the immigrants' applications, people were treated in an authoritarian and arrogant manner (questions were often put as if it were a criminal hearing, and unnecessary documents were demanded).
All these facts, along with statements by the Ministry of Interior about the need for immigrants to obey the law, created doubts among the potentially interested.
Moreover, the financial support provided to associations was only received when the process had already started, and no association had to prove how the grant had been used. SOS Racismo had maintained, since the beginning of the process, a critical position on the discrimination introduced in the law between immigrants from the Portuguese former colonies (countries where Portuguese is the official language) and the others. Whereas the first group could apply, as long as they had entered the national territory before December 1995, other aliens could only apply if they had entered Portugal before 25th March 1995.
With such a law on an extraordinary regularisation process, the objective is above all to recognise the minimum level of human dignity that every human being has the right to. This means not being excluded and not being considered a marginal element in society, but as contributing to the progress of the country where he or she is living. Therefore it is not acceptable that, in a new period of legalisation, some aliens are treated differently just because of their geographical origin. Then there was a failure to recognize a minimum level of rights and duties for all undocumented immigrants (starting with the right to have a residence permit).
It is unacceptable that fifty years after the Declaration of Human Rights, and twenty years after the Portuguese Constitution entered into force, that Parliament passes such a discriminatory law. This law was based on the very same ideas that are the basis of racism: some people are more equal than others.
It is also necessary to stress that some immigrant associations openly defended this discrimination, stressing common history, language, etc. because they just didn't understand what it was all about. And it will be interesting to observe their attitude when another law is passed that discriminates aliens in favour of nationals because of history, language, etc.
Another point of the law that we would like to criticize is the fact that the residence permits granted are only valid for one year, being therefore provisional. They have to be renewed every year for 3 years and only then will they become definitive, as long as the holder doesn't have any sort of criminal record. This point is, according to the Minister of the Interior, an incentive to respect the law. But he hasn't explained yet why aliens need incentives to respect the laws. In other words, this means that aliens by themselves are potential criminals, being then responsible to prove the contrary.
By the fact that the resident permits are only provisional, and their renewal has to respect a certain number of conditions, immigrants have remained sceptical and uncertain. This is by no means a desirable situation, if we are speaking about people being integrated into the host society.
Despite all the criticism, SOS Racismo became actively involved in the legalisation process. The main aim was nevertheless that only nationals from Cape Verde or Guinea-Bissau would become documented, but that all the aliens remaining undocumented in Portugal would get their residence permits. Many different activities were therefore launched, such as: producing and disseminating leaflets with information on conditions (in English, French and Portuguese), participation in debates about the process, and advising and counselling undocumented people.
Even though firm promises were made by the Aliens and Borders Service on the decisions, they were not kept. There were delays in issuing the residence permits, along with the fact that some public administration services and companies had refused to accept the provisional document (granted after the delivery of the request) as being a valid one.
In the end the open question is: what will happen to those that couldn't get a residence permit? The government answers this question by saying that there are plans to start programs to support voluntary return, therefore those risking expulsion would receive some kind of support to leave Portugal. As far as the second legalisation is concerned, it is possible to conclude that very many people will still be locked out of the process, therefore remaining undocumented.
An the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999, a national network of anti-racist associations was created: Rede Anti-Racista (RAR). Around 60 associations of quite broad thematic and political diversity make up this network. The main objective is clearly to combine efforts in preparing actions whose main aim is to fight for documents and equal rights for all.
Several campaigns have been taking place, such as debates with different sectors of society, and demonstrations. The demonstration that took place in Lisbon, on 19th September 1999, was especially important. It was one of the biggest demonstrations in Portugal to demand documents and equal rights for all, involving around 1,000 people. Therefore it is interesting to see that the movement is starting to become more and more organised and active in this field. For the year 2000, RAR is planning to intensify the actions described above, in order to involve more people and associations in support of the agitation for documents and equal rights for all. [back to top]
Text translated and adapted from SOS Racismo Activity Report - 1996,
Barbara Mesquita - Rede Anti-Racista (RAR)
SOURCE: SOS Racismo (1997). Relatrio 1996. Lisboa: SOS Racismo.